The last time Denis Shapovalov met Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, he could have easily been confused for a half-fluke, a lucky amoeba. At 18 and barely breaking the surface of the ATP tour, he’d been competing mostly at the Challenger level. A flip switched suddenly. Fresh off beating Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal in Montreal, he rolled right through qualifiers for the U.S. Open. He had only barely crept onto anyone’s scouting report when he blew by Tsonga in three sets, with a game charismatic enough to enchant even the basically anesthetized and tipsy Arthur Ashe crowd, then kept going into the fourth round. And then he became a known quantity.
That is why the circumstances were different the second time these two met in today’s second round of the Australian Open. “For me, I think it was an advantage to play him for the second time because I knew he was able to do things, crazy things like he did today,” Tsonga said after a victory that seemed impossible at 4-1 in the fifth set. Crazy things brought Denis Shapovalov two points from a third-round berth, but they could not push him across the finish line; this was a 3-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6(4), 7-5 bit of choke artistry he might not soon forget, the first memorable one of his ATP career.
Shapovalov has not enjoyed a single good run since the Summer of Shapo, but best-of-five format appears to suit him well enough. Maybe this has something to do with the added grandeur, or the infinite energy of being 18 years old and tearing through the rankings with nothing to lose, every match pure upside. Thus far on the ATP tour, the Canadian teen is 7-11 in best-of-three matches, and 4-3 in best-of-five matches. This match he played with his usual swagger and all-court exploration, even as he lost the fourth set—one of the best sets of tennis of the season, a heaped-up feast of winners worth watching in full—and until he threatened to go up two breaks in the fifth. There he found occasion to release the signature Air Shapo backhand:
Shapo ended up pulling off only one break in that final set, which still ought to have been plenty. Up 5-3, he served for the match against a limp Tsonga. He got to everything began to crumble for him. A double-fault crept in. Tsonga then broke serve to even the set. The Frenchman found himself jammed in the left corner, unable to play either backhand or forehand comfortably, and (at 5:08 in the video above) knocked the ball between his legs, at which point Shapo, a little stunned by the non-routine stroke, deposited a very routine ball into the net. Tsonga then pounced and finished the thing, showcasing all the whomping forehands and delicious net touch that you couldn’t be blamed for having forgotten. It has already been a decade since Tsonga made the final in Melbourne; I’d half-consigned his huge talent to the pile of French has-beens, trapped forever under the heel of Fed/Rafa/Djoker. But he still has it, to some limited extent. He has not nearly as much left in him as Shapo does; most likely it is not quite enough to sneak past Nick Kyrgios in the third round.